The GOP’s Authoritarian Front-Runner

Fearful Republican voters want a nominee they think will keep America secure. That’s Donald Trump.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a caucus night watch party at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino, Feb. 23, 2016, in Las Vegas.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a caucus night watch party at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino on Tuesday in Las Vegas.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS—The crowd at Donald Trump’s victory party on Tuesday wasn’t as large as the one that filled the arena for his Vegas rally the night before, but it was boisterous. Packed into the ballroom of the Treasure Island Casino, hundreds of people—many of them clad in Trump gear or waving American flags—cheered and chanted for the real estate mogul as they drank from the cash bar and waited to hear results for the Nevada Republican Caucus.

“Let’s make America great again,” said Dane Senser, an older man wearing a Trump hat and cradling a Budweiser. “It’s simple, but it’s true. This is a great country and there are great people. We are the greatest country in the world, let’s be proud of it, let’s not be embarrassed about it.” For Senser, Trump is an aspirational figure, someone who can give America the backbone it needs to succeed. “He will inspire people, and that’s what the country needs right now.”

It seems Nevada Republicans agreed.

Marco Rubio was backed by the state’s political establishment, and Ted Cruz made headway with religious voters, but overwhelmingly—like their counterparts in New Hampshire and South Carolina—Republican voters flocked to the former reality TV star and his promise to “make America great again.” Turnout blew past expectations, and voters crowded caucus sites—throwing the process into chaos in some precincts—to cast a ballot for the billionaire. Trump was winning handily with more than 45 percent of the vote and nearly 90 percent of the results counted, to about 23 percent for Rubio and about 22 percent for Cruz. Trump won with every demographic, exceeding Cruz with evangelicals and beating Rubio with more moderate Republicans.

It was a complete rout, and once again, Trump showed he was the only candidate with a coalition that can carry him through the entire primary, bringing working-class whites together with conservative evangelicals and Republican moderates. Indeed, Trump is poised to dominate in next week’s Super Tuesday primaries, where he leads in eight of the 12 contests. By this time next week, Trump could have a commanding lead in votes and delegates. And while it’s possible that this slips away in the face of party opposition, it’s unlikely. The last presidential candidate—in either party—to win the nomination without winning an early state was Bill Clinton in 1992. But there’s a critical difference between then and now. The early states were split at the time between multiple candidates, giving Clinton the space to build consecutive wins after faltering early on. Trump has been the consecutive winner in this primary, which gives him a powerful advantage.

Or, put simply, Donald Trump is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. Period. Yes, Rubio is the favorite of the GOP establishment and Cruz is the candidate of conservative activists, but neither is close to overcoming Trump or turning this multi-candidate race into a one-on-one contest. Absent a major shift in the primary, Trump will reach escape velocity, and for the first time in the modern era, a genuine outsider will win a major party nomination, throwing his host—the Republican Party—into complete disarray. Or, as former Cruz spokeswoman Amanda Carpenter said on CNN on Tuesday night, “I’m really struck in thinking about what a Donald Trump nomination would actually mean. I really think it’s the end of the Republican party.”

Trump’s supporters aren’t shy with praise for the real estate mogul. They praise him for being a businessman; they praise him for talking tough to countries like China and Mexico; they praise him for voicing his mind and “saying what we’re all thinking,” as several people voiced it to me Tuesday evening. What Trump wants to do—his policies, his plans, his proposals—is less important than who he is, a self-proclaimed avatar of national strength.

This gets to something important about Trump’s appeal. Trump is a classic authoritarian. “What do we all want?” he asked at Monday’s rally. “We want security. We want a strong country.” Critically, his voters are authoritarians too. As pollster Matthew MacWilliams described it in Vox, “A voter’s gender, education, age, ideology, party identification, income, and race simply had no statistical bearing on whether someone supported Trump.” What matters, instead, is voter authoritarianism. “People who score high on the authoritarian scale value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders. And when authoritarians feel threatened, they support aggressive leaders and policies,” he writes.

More than anything, it’s clear Trump wants his supporters to be afraid. He wants them to fear immigrants, to fear Muslims, to fear anyone who might be an outsider. But what’s just as important is that Trump voters are actually afraid. They are fearful for the country, and they see Trump as someone who can protect them. And given Trump’s position in the primary, their fear may take him all the way to the prize. 

Read more Slate coverage of the GOP primary.